PIANO MAN

It was a Friday night when I got off the bus in Portland. There was a chill in the air. I was going to a restaurant to meet a pianist.

His name was Art and he had a gig playing jazz at an eatery downtown. I’d rather be composing, he said, and shrugged.

Quite an adventure, going to stay with a person I’d know for just a couple of intense weeks through a personal growth course in Northern California. I wouldn’t be so adventurous now, wouldn’t be so trusting. But Art was a cool dude and one of the smattering of non-therapists doing the training. We hung out a bit during breaks and I was able to stretch my limited knowledge of jazz into something that connected us.

On the final night we performed together, me reciting a poem I’d written a few days earlier while Art extemporised energetically on the careworn upright in the main hall. It was fun, even though his brilliant improvisations didn’t entirely coalesce with the song-like stanzas I’d crafted. Art wanted reading as dramatic as his playing and kept encouraging me to pump up the verses. I’ve always preferred poetry read in a slightly bored monotone—let the words add the energy, not the voice. My writing could use such toning down; too much vibrato sometimes. Still, we did something, Art and me. Something co-created, something new; it forms a bond. As the group disbanded the next day, returning to homes interstate or across the world, a farewell conversation with the venerable teacher revealed that he had not realised the poem was newly written about the journey we’d all taken. You wrote that? Huh! Thought it was from a book.

So I was in an unfamiliar city on a chilly early Autumn evening asking directions for Higgins Restaurant and Bar (or whatever it was called) from the entirely disinterested person behind the office window. And not for the last time, fell into the beginner’s trap of not specifying I was on foot. People just assume you have transport, even if you are carrying a pack and just got off a Greyhound. Just walk straight out the door and turn left, it’s not far.

Trudging up the wrong side of a six lane highway through the Oregon night I saw no-one. Shuttered windows and speeding cars with yellow, jaundiced eyes. Wondered about a cab but had no idea how to action that; no mobiles in those days. A weary ‘eventually’ later, I found the place. Stood on the door-step feeling nervous; sounds of eating and muted conversation from the lit interior. Sounds of piano, too. That gave me courage.

A whispered conversation with the Maître D’ then a small seat near the piano. Another basic instrument, better cared for. A nod from Art but not much else. Focussed on his playing. Diner attention on their meals or companions or conversations. Talking a bit louder when Art played a more energetic passage. I wondered if his frown was concentration or a reaction to the indifference of the audience.

Let’s go to Higgins, they gotta piano man on Friday nights.

Loud isn’t it, in this small space? Don’t worry, I think he’s almost finished. Dessert?

The artist’s life.

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A gift indeed. As was Art’s hospitality.

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OBSTRUCTION

Here, idyll.

Surf in the distance, its soothing pianissimo thunder punctuated by the occasional foreground car.  Ultramarine sky.

But not one idea has done more than hover like a seagull over the shoreline. No stories, insights, flashes of inspiration. A brain made drowsy by a surfeit of summer. Or other things.

I’m a nighttime person, generally. Not that I sleep in. Middle-aged aches and a querulous bladder argue against bedly indulgence. So often the time after the boy and his mum head bedwards is when I imagine writing. Thinking fuzzied by the mealtime libation, ideas fogged by alcohol and the muddy lethargy that comes from watching summer sport on TV. An evening person, perhaps, but self-sabotage arises locally—a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Australian Open tennis evening sessions.

Lack of discipline is the most common get-out clause for writers trapped in a low orbit. As I trek through Irvin Yalom’s recently released memoir—a hero, I hate him—and read about his ‘mornings writing and afternoons exploring’ (Bali, Seychelles, Paris, Lake Como, Holy Homer, what a life) I recognise that under my sneering envy of his privilege lies an uncomfortable truth. I’ve never been willing to claim the keyboard. Really make a commitment and shoulder whatever sacrifice is required. The recent Rearview Mirror series at Vinyl Connection is my first attempt at greater-than-weekly writing in almost five years. Pathetic.

The surge of envy is entirely equal to the slough of self-hatred.

Self-confidence is vital in any endeavour. Somehow the ‘I can’ voice must overcome the stabs of doubt and the whispers of ineffectuality else the child is stillborn. Dead before arrival. Often thoughts and ideas appear on my inner screen like distant fireworks—brief explosions of light and muted cracks, low on the horizon and soon extinguished. Reading how Yalom spends time before sleep pondering and playing with plot and story ideas for the next day’s writing gets me thinking (again) about the ephemeral nature of my own sparks. A proper writer can bottle that lightning and tap it the next day like plugging into a wall socket. It’s not just practice, though that would help (as would a simple way to capture fleeting images). I remember lying outside at midnight in rural Jamieson, many years ago, sharing the rug with a friend as we gazed up at the Milky Way. She always seemed to be looking in the right place to see the meteorite. My sightings were peripheral; by the time my eyes flicked to the silver pencil-trail it was gone.

Yearning to decorate the sky, yet so muddily earthbound.

Brainbound, more accurately.
How to interrogate this process, despite its crushing familiarity.

An idea comes.

A writing idea, ‘cos that’s my thing.

Then something shuts down. Like a clamp, like a blanket. Like the night of an impenetrably empty space. As Piglet put it so eloquently, ‘A great big… Nothing’.

Invoking Pooh’s timorous wee friend is no accident. For all my ability to channel Owl-like pomposity and nihilistic Eeyore pessimism, it is the ever-fearful Piglet who is my enduring talisman.

An aside. I’m recalling the story where Piglet gets a bath—much against his wishes—and is highly uncomfortable until he has escaped and rolled himself in sufficient dirt to recover his familiar grubby persona. That feels a bit like me and therapy, to be honest.

Back to the brain. The shutting down syndrome. It’s a cerebral trauma response, where overload leads to stasis. Nothing revelatory there; the process is one I’ve been working through myself and with clients for decades. (Three ironic cheers for The Wounded Healer!). But we are not veering off into a psychological paper for two reasons. Firstly, I’m not remotely well-read enough on emerging research in neuropsychology to offer anything helpful, and secondly, I don’t want to. Correction: I am not able to. Even this level of disclosure has a part of me quivering with terror.

What’s to be done? Is this brain plaque capable of being dissolved by therapy and (or?) other healing processes?

Or writing? Around twenty years ago I purchased a book called Journalling For Joy. Ten years ago I took it out of the paper carry-bag. Still haven’t opened it though.

It feels like a race against time. Enough healing to write—really write, according to the desire of my crumpled heart—before the natural and unavoidable ageing process dusts away vocabulary from the mind’s blackboard, leaving only vague smears of regret… that’s the goal, I guess. Avoid regret.

Unless, of course, there’s a future in writing about not writing?

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MORE FANDOM THAN EKPHRASIS

I’ve just completed a long, wandering, engrossing journey with a man I’ve never met. Might never meet.

At the end and during, he writes about creativity, suicide, nature, work, self-absorption and music. Every post there was something I wanted to riff off; grab the baton and run (or at least trot) a few metres on my own, see if it took me somewhere else, somewhere different to where I am with my own writing.

The cage of music. That’s what it’s become. It’s a huge enclosure, none of your two-paces then reverse, bars in your face, shit on the floor penitentiary. No, this is a massive wildlife zone where you can ramble and explore and never quite know what is coming next. Like the Hunger Games dome, but with less teen deathporn and more prog rock.

But still, I have been feeling constrained; there are only so many memoir stories directly relating to albums. Without the personal, Vinyl Connection is just another music blog, jostling for space with a thousand others, frowning as it tries to find a unique voice. A voice about others’ work, others’ creativity. A bottom feeder. The music is made, recorded, it sells, gets played, gets shelved. Hundreds of albums a year, thousands of songs. It’s overwhelming. We carve out niches of expertise; passion becomes a castle. It’s impossible to keep up, so put your head down. Explore the contiguous unknown, buttress enjoyment with opinion, plug gaps with arcane knowledge. Collect.

One of my music pals, Michael PH, loves much of the same progressive music I do.

I remember Michael as a diffident young man in his early twenties, burrowing through my crates at a long distant record fair. I kind of recognised him from previous fairs, maybe he’d bought some of the records I stupidly sold when I bought the CDs. The gif I remember relates to an amazing album by Dave Greenslade and Patrick Woodroffe. The package is amazing, not the music. The music sucks.  Taste the disappointment, if you wish.

I was selling a spare copy (the old record collector ‘upgrade’ idea) and because it is kind of rare, punters kept taking it out of the protective plastic cover to look at the pictures. The pictures are amazing, I shouldn’t have judged them. Most would only have heard about the book/record, never seen it. But I did blame them, got grumpier and grumpier with the tyre kickers, the tight-fisted voyeurs. When young Michael repeated the same moves, I said testily, look, this isn’t a library. He looked taken aback. I want to buy it, he said. And did.

Michael didn’t deserve my grumpiness. Not his fault that I couldn’t spot the difference between genuine dedication to the music and idle curiosity. That was maybe twenty years ago. Michael has gone on to be one of the Progarchives website’s most significant contributors. The student has long surpassed the master in knowledge and appreciation of the music. Still, he occasionally messages me, like last Sunday, to ask what I know about an obscure New Age electronic artist from Germany. (Nothing, but that’s OK). And he added the recent Tangerine Dream record to Progarchives just so I could post my review. Not sure I deserve the respect he offers me. He has grown up, I’ve grown older.

Success—no matter what the field of endeavour, performing or reviewing—is a kind of power. And power separates us, when there is too great a differential.

Quite a few years ago I went to see Steve Winwood perform in Melbourne at the tennis centre. Good seats about half-way back, with two mates both slightly older than I. They wanted “Dear Mr Fantasy”, I wanted “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”.

About half-way through some audience members left their seats to move to the front of the stage. As the heat didn’t immediately attack them with stun grenades and night sticks, I deemed it safe to get closer to this long-time idol. Excused myself, apologetically, I have to do this, do you see? Went down and wriggled forwards to within a few metres of the singer, him up above, me below. Close enough to see the sweat, close enough to feel the chasm that separates performer from fan. Always and forever.

Wrote that in response to a William Pearse piece, The ‘kill your idols’ concept. I’ve become a big fan of Bill. The way he works little philosophical quandaries into his tales, his deft use of circularity, his honesty about his own flaws. And his output. You could say his recent journey has charged my batteries. Michael tells me it’s called a bromance. Hm. Could we call it inspiration?

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